GENEVA -- Switzerland's most right-wing political party surged to stunning gains yesterday in the country's parliamentary elections, apparently capturing the largest share of the vote nationwide and raising fears that this middle-of-the-road country is following its neighbor Austria into political conservatism.
Televised exit polls from the nationwide elections showed the Swiss People's Party captured an estimated 23 percent of the votes cast for the lower house, up from 15 percent in the last elections in 1995. If the trend holds, the People's Party, an anti-immigrant, anti-tax and anti-European Union group dominated by outspoken industrialist Christoph Blocher, could remake Switzerland's staid political map.
Pre-election polls had predicted that Blocher's party, which is centered in the German-speaking portion of Switzerland, would overtake the left-leaning Social Democrats and the two center-right parties to become Switzerland's pre-eminent political party.
But the size of its victory appeared to stun the political establishment. Final official results are not expected until today.
The Swiss elections came two weeks after Joerg Haider led his far-right Freedom Party into second place in Austria's national election, endangering his country's coalition government.
Similarly, the success of Switzerland's ardent nationalists threatens this country's so-called "magic formula" -- the governing coalition of the country's four political parties that has balanced regional interests and its four language groups -- French, Italian, German and Romansch -- since 1959.
Blocher has campaigned on an anti-European platform, opposing membership in the United Nations -- whose European headquarters is in Geneva -- and the European Union and in favor of maintaining traditional Swiss neutrality.
Record unemployment of more than 7 percent has been dropping in the past two years, and Switzerland continues to have a high standard of living, but the vote appeared to reflect concern over jobs and swelling immigration, particularly from Kosovo, the Yugoslav province over which NATO went to war last spring.